Remembering former Glebe resident and fiery nationalist Robin Mathews
By Theresa Wallace
“To have contempt for one’s own culture is to have contempt for one’s own people.”
Passionate Canadian nationalist Robin Mathews was a poet, playwright, literary critic, political activist, educator and former Glebe resident who enlivened Fourth Avenue and the whole country with his fierce advocacy for Canadian culture and identity. He died this past spring in Vancouver at the age of 91, leaving Esther, his wife of 64 years.
Robin and Esther’s Fourth Avenue house, a magical, old, brick three-storey located not far from Bank Street and filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, drew literature students from across Canada who were living in Ottawa and taking courses at Carleton University where Mathews taught for 18 years.
Don Cummer, a grad student at Carleton University’s Institute of Canadian Studies in the late 1970s, says Mathews was generous and kind in his review of his students’ work, but he showed no mercy to published intellectuals with whom he disagreed. “He gave us a sense that we were all engaged in a fight for the soul of Canada – a beleaguered hinterland striving to express itself clearly and honestly amid the cacophony of the metropolitan centres in the U.S.A. and Britain. I think we all became ardent Canadian nationalists under his tutelage.”
Like many of Mathews’ students, Cummer, who had moved to Ottawa from his home province of Alberta, was absorbed into the extended family. “We’d show up at his Fourth Avenue house for a seminar or a meeting on one of his various projects and find a hive buzzing with activity. Not just his wife Esther and their three kids. You might find poets Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier working on an anthology with Robin. Or Milton Acorn stretching his arms and yawning after a night on the living room sofa. You became accustomed to meeting the luminaries of Canadian literature and nationalism at the Mathews’ residence.”
Wayne Lennon, a contemporary of Cummer’s who grew up in Ottawa and did grad studies at Carleton, concurs. “Robin made me think I was part of a large family. Dysfunctional at times we were, perhaps, but happy warriors in the cause of Canadian literature. Since hearing of his death, I’ve gone back and pulled a couple of books of Robin’s poetry off the shelves. I’d forgotten how overtly political they are. In reading them, I’m struck by how crude and boring what passes for political discourse these days is. For a young, if hopelessly naive revolutionary, those were the halcyon years.”
Mathews published dozens of books of literary criticism, poetry, stories and plays. He was one of four key founders of the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, and he ran (and lost) twice in the federal riding of Ottawa Centre.
In 1978, Jane Sellwood, who moved to Ottawa from her hometown Winnipeg, took a seminar with Mathews comparing English and French-Canadian literature. “Robin’s course opened up my awareness of the culture and history of my own country but also influenced the academic direction of my life for the next 30 years. I realized literature was more than Wordsworth’s English daffodils. It was here, and Canadian literature represented my own history and experience.” Sellwood, then a master’s degree student at Carleton, went on to do a PhD in Canadian literature. She edited Mathews’ short fiction collection Blood Ties and Other Stories, published in 1984 by Steel Rail, a press that Robin and Esther ran out of their Glebe house.
Sellwood moved to British Columbia for a teaching job and eventually the Mathews, who were both born in British Columbia, moved back to their home province where Mathews taught at Simon Fraser University.
“The last time I saw Robin was around 2009,” Sellwood says. “One summer Saturday morning in Victoria, I set out to have coffee at a café. As I climbed the steps to the terrace outside the café, I noticed an attractive grey-haired gentleman sitting at one of the tables, particularly his saddle shoes, which were two-toned red and beige. It was Robin! He and his friend invited me to join them and treated me to lunch and gelato. They had taken the ferry over from Vancouver to see an exhibit by Joseph Plaskett, a Canadian painter. After lunch, we went into the gallery next door and spent a delightful afternoon viewing and discussing Plaskett’s works.
“What I remember most about that afternoon is Robin’s intellectual energy and his enthusiasm for the artist, which so reminded me of his seminars at Carleton University. At the end of this marvellous, serendipitous afternoon, we bid farewell outside the gallery. That was the last time I had the honour of being in Robin Mathew’s inspiring presence.”
Theresa Wallace is an Ottawa writer and former student of Robin Mathews.
Robin Mathews, 1931-2023, was a poet, a critic, an educator, a fierce Canadian nationalist and a Glebite.